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Gay couples in red-state America consider bluer pastures

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Kelly Wroblewski lives in Austin, Tx., with her partner of 10 years, Kristina Lestik. Both women are high school teachers in their early 30s, have pets and wear promise rings to show their commitment.

Austin has been a comfortable place for them to live. The city council endorsed marriage equality in 2012 and extended benefits to same-sex partners of city employees.

But that’s a far cry from the full federal rights, benefits and recognition that same-sex couples living in other states stand to gain if the Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act later this year.

Until now, same-sex couples, regardless of where they lived, lacked such federal recognition. If the court rules as many legal scholars predict, the decision could create a radical level of inequality among gay couples based exclusively on geography.

At the moment, same-sex marriage is legal in nine states and the District of Columbia. What worries many activists, is that the court will continue to leave the issue to states, making it hard to know when full rights could come to gay citizens who reside in conservative states.

“Getting out of Texas will be really hard,” said Wroblewski, noting her mother lives nearby. “But it just seems inevitable.”

The couple would like to be legally married but such talk leads to more talk of relocating to the Pacific Northwest where same sex marriage is legal in the state of Washington. Polling suggests that it will take another seven years before a majority of Texans could support marriage equality.

“We can’t stay here if we’re not allowed to have all the rights of married folks,” Lestik adds.

She isn’t alone. Many married and unmarried gay couples in the reddest of red states have championed legislative gains in recent years and eye the Court with hope. But they also increasingly feel the yawning rights gap and express skepticism of a state-by-state solution should a narrow Supreme Court ruling come down.

Legal disparities

The Human Rights Campaign estimates married gay couples miss out on over a thousand federal rights, benefits and protections on account of DOMA, including the ability to collect a deceased spouse’s Social Security benefits..

“The disparities are really stark for families if they’re able to protect their families through marriage laws or if they’re not,” said Janson Wu, staff attorney at the Boston-based Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders. “The discrimination and the harms to those families and their children is substantial,” Wu said.

Full adoption by same-sex couples is currently legal in 18 states and in Washington D.C. But often “those adoptions rights are tied to the ability to get married,” Wu said in an interview.

Wu said those rights and some state benefits have already pulled some red-state couples north to New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts.

“They knew that their families and their children would be fully protected here,” he tells msnbc. “Let’s be clear, it’s not just marriage equality. In more than half the states in the country you can be fired or be kicked out of a restaurant for being gay. So there are so many more protections in those states that accept the full dignity and equality of gay and lesbian folks beyond just marriage.”

Wedding March

Though their wedding ceremony took place during a historic gay rights march on Washington, the moment never felt entirely right to Joy Wasson and Liz Throop. They wore dresses and carried flowers during the rally for Lesbian and Gay Rights, which took place on October 11, 1987.

“We went to some friends’ houses afterward for a reception, but it never really felt right to us because it wasn’t legal,” said Wasson, 56, who works at Emory University and lives in Atlanta.

Wasson and Throop, a graphic design teacher at Georgia State, have been together for 33 years and are registered as domestic partners in Atlanta.

“I hope [national marriage equality] is inevitable but it doesn’t look that way,” says Throop. “The climate here – not in Atlanta – but Georgia as a whole, it doesn’t seem favorable. I think it’s a real possibility we’ll still have this uncertain status after this summer.”

Georgia’s Republican-dominated legislature is considering the Georgia Fair Employment Practices Act, a bill that addresses LGBT concerns, but not marriage equality. The state’s largest LGBT advocacy group, Georgia Equality, notes the bill was co-sponsored by 55 Democrats and 11 Republicans in the House. If passed, it would bar discriminatory practices in the workplace.

“We’re ticked off that we’re in a state that’s behind the times,” Wasson says. Despite living in Atlanta since the late 70s, the couple hasn’t ruled out moving out of Georgia. It depends on how the court rules.

“It also depends on where else marriage might become legal, said Wasson. “Don’t know that we’d want to move to any of the current states, but you never know.”

“The time to run is long gone”

At 41, Eddie Outlaw remembers when there were few gay rights. But he knows the second half of his life could look quite different.

“We didn’t grow up dreaming of getting married one day, but now that this is kind of being held out there for us and it’s a possibility,” he said.

Outlaw runs a  hair salon and day spa with his partner, Justin McPherson, in Jackson, Miss. Outlaw, also a prolific blogger, describes the city and the neighborhood of Fondren as a “kind of hot bed for progressive artists, and liberal forward-thinking people.”

They muse of a “Golden Globes” type of wedding and reception but they’re unsure over where and when to do it. Should they haul family and friends out of state or wait it out at home?

Mississippi voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman. Gay couples in the state aren’t allowed to adopt children jointly. In 2011, just 13% of the state’s voters support legalizing marriage equality.

If the court leaves it up to Mississippi, Outlaw and McPherson will need to make their own decisions. Have they ever considered packing up and leaving the state? Do they covet what couples in the nine states and D.C. have?

“Of course I do. I’m green as hell,” Outlaw said. “I would be lying if I said I was so headstrong that I never considered the idea,” of leaving. But, he said, “the time to run is long gone.”